You’ll probably never need to consider quite how heavy a snowmobile is until you roll one over on a glacier, and have to right it yourself. (About 240kg, since you ask.)
My “incident” happened at a snail’s pace as I—a complete newbie to driving one of these powerful beasts— tried to make a tight turn on a slight incline, and failed to lean upslope as I had been instructed by glacier guide Stefán. The machine toppled—slowly and elegantly—and I hopped off it unharmed, attempting nonchalance as best I could.
My biggest concern was that my Grapevine colleagues, who had stopped a few hundred metres behind, had spotted my faux pas. They had, of course, and Stefán had clearly seen this kind of customer clumsiness before, too. As he rode back to check in with me and continue leading our group across the Langjökull glacier, he put my ham-fisted handling to shame by deliberately leaning his own beast over on one ski: the snowmobile equivalent of pulling a wheelie. Show off.
Into the white
Our destination was the Amazing Crystal Ice Cave, a huge chasm that appeared on the east side of the glacier last year. It was discovered last September by Stefán and a cave-hunting team put together by Amazing Tours and Sleipnir Tours, who scour Langjökull every autumn for these naturally-forming wonders. Jón Kristinn Jónsson, boss of Amazing Tours and a glacier professional with decades of experience, says that—with the main chamber at about 12m high and 10m wide—it’s the biggest ice cave he has ever seen.
To check it out, Team Grapevine drove the two hours from Reykjavík to the Amazing Tours base at Skjól, just south of the glacier. There we transferred to Sleipnir’s impressive monster bus—a vehicle equipped with eight giant wheels to roll effortlessly over crevasses that would swallow anything smaller—for a comfortable 30km ride to the glacier camp.
On arrival we donned fluorescent overalls and motorbike helmets, received a briefing on how to handle our snowmobiles and were led off by Stefán, camel-train style. And that’s where the hard work began.
Driving a snowmobile is great fun, but they don’t come with power steering and the 12km ride to the cave became something of an upper-body workout. But the landscape took my mind off the exertion, and my breath away. The white-on-white of fresh snow on glacial ice created a surreal monochrome vista, punctuated only by the colourful splashes of my fellow travellers’ overalls and vehicles.
After 30 minutes we parked the snowmobiles, pulled on the crampons provided and started the short hike though metre-deep snow. Although beautiful, the freshly fallen powder made the going tough, and I was glad to stop every once in a while to admire the cascading ice spikes of small frozen water flows.
Inside the ice
The cave entrance was marked by a whirring generator to power the lights inside and, as I descended the roughly-hewn ice steps, the majesty of the space below became apparent.
Nature has sculpted a cathedral of ice within the glacier. The frozen water extends above, below and all around, reflecting and refracting the floodlights to reveal a multitude of hues of blue. And it’s surprisingly warm inside the cave. The temperature hovers steadily near freezing regardless of the outside temperature, and after the exertions of a journey in windy sub-zero conditions I needed to shed some layers once inside.
Private tours are carefully scheduled between the larger groups, allowing for a more relaxed time within the cave. We spent more than an hour there as did Ashley and Zac, an American couple who used the opportunity to get married in full wedding dress and tuxedo. The ice cave is probably the most ecclesiastical space you can imagine that isn’t actually a church.
The cave has a balcony from which you can view its full extent, but the best experience is to be had by climbing to the lower level. There are ropes installed in the ice wall, and expert guides who position themselves under you and tell you where to put your feet as you go up or down. However, this activity is not for the faint-hearted, nor anyone with mobility issues. It’s also not something that you can assume will be included in a tour; the guides on site will assess the suitability of lower-level access for each individual.
After a tricky climb down the ice wall I carefully traversed the sloping lower floor, where glacial water flowed to make the slippery surface just that little bit more hazardous. Then another strenuous, sweaty ice wall climb back up took me to a platform where nature had thoughtfully sculpted some seats of solid ice, offering rest to those who have made the effort to reach them.
Eventually, as we slowly crossed the lower floor again to leave the cave, I stopped and gazed up into the glinting ceiling of translucent whites and blues. I felt humbled by this awe-inspiring natural phenomenon, and relieved that I had managed the trip without once slipping and falling on my arse. Even if I had rolled a snowmobile.
Name: Glacier Snowmobiling and Ice Cave Adventure – From Skjól – Private Tour
Cost Per Person: Dependent on group size – price on application
Duration: 12 hours from Reykjavik
Transport: Own vehicle required to get to Skjól
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